I found myself immersed in Americana music much more than other genres in 2015 and as such I ended up with a large list of great albums to whittle down to the 40 you’ll find below. They’re all worthy of a listen, ranging from excellent to brilliant and they cover all bases – from alt. country to folk, blues to soul and rock ‘n’ roll. I reviewed many of these albums so hit the link if you want to read more. Let me know your thoughts on my choices and which albums you loved the most this year.
1. James McMurtry – Complicated Game
McMurtry was a new discovery for me in 2015, despite Complicated Game being his tenth studio album. I was immediately floored by the storytelling, the vivid and heartbreaking prose that cut straight to the core of the story at hand and by using the fewest words possible he drew me into his characters, predicaments, heartache and troubled times. His closest contemporary is Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine, The Delines) who he shares a fascination with the downtrodden and struggling. Complicated Game was the most consistent and exquisite example of songwriting, complete with restrained and emotive playing, that I heard in 2015.
“Though this solo debut has been a long time coming he has toured and built a strong reputation as a live performer across Australia and NZ and that experience has filtered through on this superb album that never falters or loses its sense of wonderment across thirty-five playing minutes.”
“The balance and symmetry of Thomson’s writing is a standout facet of his music. From blues to country, folk to New Orleans flavours, through the positive vibe of love songs to the darker desolation of characters at the end of line he nails them all in mood and lyrical imagery”
“That ability to hammer out a brisk honky tonk rhythm one minute and then craft a late night whisky-sodden ballad of heartache highlights the band’s magic. Combined with the way they apply tonality to their songs, both vocally and instrumentally, Lost Ragas have created an album of timeless quality, full of dark and graceful beauty.”
5. Nadia Reid – Listen to Formation, Look For The Signs
From the same studio that has seen the likes of Marlon Williams, Delaney Davidson, Tami Neilson and Aldous Harding comes Nadia Reid, already an accomplished and mature songwriter with a voice that resonates with deep sensitivity and emotion. She has a folk style that balances poetically between soulful and melancholic earthiness with a nod to fellow NZ’er Tiny Ruins, Mazzy Star and someone like Beth Orton. Simply beautiful and mesmerising.
“Throw The Band and The Felice Brothers into a roots music blender and you’ll end up with something resembling Houndmouth. On their second album they’ve taken their already impressive Americana sound to another level with rousing, infectious choruses, heartbreaking harmonies and a looser rock ’n’ roll feel. This is modern suburban Appalachian music that sounds contemporary, free-wheeling and celebratory.”
7. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
Josh Tillman does it again, proving that his reinvention (as an amplified version himself) wasn’t a fluke on Fear Fun. Here he goes deeper, more intimate and with greater lyrical and musical flourishes akin to a matador flirting with the bull. No-one else is writing like Tillman in the current indie/Americana climate, he is his own niche and it’s a glorious lush and baroque affair.
8. Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid
Neilson has quickly followed up her breakthrough album Dynamite! with Don’t Be Afraid, an album that came to light in the shadow of the sad passing of her father. She meets that grief head-on and continues to mine the rich and diverse vein of country, soul and rockabilly that has, in recent years, seen her take out numerous awards. Don’t Be Afraid finds her continuing to expand her musical palette with confidence and personality.
9. Kurt Vile – B’lieve I’m Goin Down…
Vile continues his streak of greatness with another album that draws a link from pastoral folk to boho bluesy ramblings and American primitive guitar stylings. From influences like Beck, Television, J Mascis and John Fahey he has mixed them all into his own unique sleepy mantras that draw you in deep.
“A collection of songs that document life’s troubles, trials and tribulations matched by an organic and brawny soundtrack. Bingham hasn’t taken any great risks or quantum leaps in style. If anything he’s identified his strengths and honed in on them with pinpoint accuracy. That ravaged and raw voice is still the focal point. World weary and lived-in it conveys the songs’ stories with gravity and authenticity.”
11. Perry Keyes – Sunnyholt
“Keyes should be lauded in his hometown of Sydney for his songwriting that paints an accurate and incisive picture of the city’s life on both its shiny surface and often devastating and tragic flip-side. Instead he finds greater audiences in other cities but perhaps his muse operates most succinctly and poetically when on the outside looking in, giving blood and oxygen to a myriad of characters both real and imagined yet wholly believable.”
“She wraps up country and soul music in warm and familiar fashion, relying equally on the sultry and surly qualities of her singing. Hers rings true like a classic country voice but in the modern Americana world of roots music cross-pollination she also draws on soul music, even covering the Bee Gees’ classic ‘To Love Somebody’.”
“Dylan’s voice is the focal point and it’s never sounded this intimate and richly toned. He digs deep into the emotional core of the songs, investing a lifetime of musical exploration in each line and phrase while the band gently break hearts in the background, playing with gorgeous subtlety and restraint. In the latter part of his career Dylan is still finding new ways to paint traditional forms with his genius.”
“Like a straighter American cousin to C.W. Stoneking’s more esoteric old-timey sound, Pokey LaFarge blends all manner of traditional musical forms – from jazz and swing to folk, country, doo-wop and mariachi. It’s all woven together in LaFarge’s authentic style on this, his most realised album to date.”
15. Ryley Walker – Primrose Green
Walker has already dismissed this LP as he fast forwards into the next phase of his career but it is an excellent album. Built on the legacy of Tim Buckley, Van Morrison and Nick Drake it shines dappled autumnal light on jazz-flavoured folk music with rich dexterity.
“On their second album Raised By Eagles eschew some of the ragged country rock moves of their debut and head for classic songwriting territory with excursions into power pop and acoustic balladry. By carving out their own niche in the world of alt.country Raised By Eagles should widen their appeal with this accomplished sophomore album.”
17. Lucero – All A Man Should Do
The road-worn Lucero have lived hard and drunk heavily as they’ve toured their alt. country albums but this time around they’ve slowed the tempos and accentuated their soulful side with keyboards adding colour and the songs documenting places and the complex world of love. The sad songs hit hard and the positive songs are draped in melancholy making this their finest record to date.
18. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
The golden boy of Americana does it again with his follow-up to Southeastern. He’s changed up his songwriting after the somewhat thematic precursor and also added a wider stylistic palette to his music but it is still the honesty and the element of the art of songwriting that elevates this album. It doesn’t match the peaks of Southeastern but it still reaches pretty lofty heights at times.
“After dalliances with an orchestra and antique lo-fi recording equipment Neil Young is back to playing rock n roll with a band. Not Crazy Horse this time but a group that includes Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah. It’s a political statement in the vein of Young’s other strident environmentally themed albums but even if that doesn’t interest or inspire you there is plenty to like sonically with long winding, distorted tracks mixing with Harvest Moon-esque ballads.”
20. John Moreland – High On Tulsa Heat
We started this list with the arrival of a songwriter who has been at it for a while and we round out the top 20 with another such artist. Moreland has travelled from punk bands to country rock and now solo singer/songwriter and like many musicians on this list he hits a melancholic place in his writing where certain lines hit like sledgehammers and vignettes and scenarios burst into hyperreal life on the back of perfectly formed and highly acute lyrics.
23. Malcolm Holcombe – RCA Sessions
25. Dave Rawlings Machine – Nashville Obsolete
26. Daniel Romano – If I’ve Only One Time Askin’
28. Andrew Combs – All These Dreams
29. Will Johnson – Swan City Vampires
30. Justin Townes Earle – Absent Fathers
32.Papa Pilko & The Binrats – Till The End Of The Road
33. Wilco – Star Wars
35. Promised Land Sound – For Use And Delight
37. Anna & Elizabeth – Anna & Elizabeth
38. GospelbeacH – Pacific Surf Line
39. Whitey Morgan & The 78’s – Sonic Ranch
40. Lew Card – Low Country Hi-Fi